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Interview with Herman Cohen

Herman Cohen was U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1989-1993. In this interview, conducted by filmmaker Nancee Oku Bright in February 2000, Cohen discusses the long-term relationship of the U.S. and Liberia and the consequences of the decision by the George H.W. Bush White House in 1990 to not involve the U.S. in mediating in the civil war between rebel leader Charles Taylor and the government of Samuel K. Doe. Cohen also discusses the impact of the Liberian war on the rest of West Africa.


The historic relationship between the U.S. and Liberia

Bright: There's not a great sense [in America] of the historical relationship between America and Liberia. Can you say something about that?

Cohen: Well, the movement in the 1820s to return freed slaves to the [African] continent was essentially a racist-type movement, [an expression of the idea that] these people are free, but we don't want them to live here. And it did result in a foreign [group], an external group implanting itself in an area -- almost like a heart transplant that doesn't work. It was a totally different civilization and, in effect, subjugated a native people there and developed into an apartheid system.

But these people who settled there never gave up their ties to the United States. They sent their children there. They followed U.S. constitutional norms, religious groupings, holidays, and what have you.

It was all very American, and over the years, it grew up into a very Americanized type of society at the elite level, whereas the majority level was maintained at a very African, primitive level. So there was this deep divide. But as far as the U.S. was concerned, it was always a very cozy relationship. We had the rubber plantations, and it was all working out very well....

Bright: Describe Liberia as you first encountered it.

Cohen: Liberia was always the best friend of the United States. We could always count on their cooperation, their foreign policy issues -- Cold War issues especially. And they were always willing to give us facilities in Liberia. For example, we had unlimited use of Robertsfield, Robertsport. We had two vast antennae stations there, one for diplomatic communications, one for Voice of America broadcasting. We had an Omega navigation station there run by the Coast Guard. So it was a perfect relationship for us. Internally, we did not worry too much about the situation there. It was always very stable.

Pointing the finger at the U.S. for Liberia's problems

Bright: Liberians blame the U.S. for a lot of their problems. Do you agree?

Cohen: Well, it's very easy to blame the United States. [But] we didn't bring about Samuel Doe's arrival in power. He represented a rebellion of the country people, the original inhabitants. The population of Liberia, the majority being country people, sort of liked that. It showed that the Americo-Liberians were no longer dominant, and it was a popular change.

So the United States had no reason to change that or try to go against that. We accepted Samuel Doe like the people of Liberia did. Unfortunately, he ran an increasingly corrupt regime, and there were the elections of 1985 which he should have lost, but he rigged the election. But at that time, all West African elections were rigged. It was a very normal thing to do for the government to win the election, even though they may have had less than a majority of the vote. So that didn't trouble us at all.

Now, in retrospect a lot of Liberians said, "You shouldn't have recognized that election; you should have forced Samuel Doe to give up power." And then when the rebellion came, we tried to do things with the Liberian army to minimize human rights violations. The Liberian army was engaging in indiscriminate killing of villagers in the area where the rebellion was taking place, the Charles Taylor rebellion, and we tried to send advisors there to help them limit those. But the Liberian community here was up in arms about that, and they said, "You're just helping Samuel Doe stay in power." So we backed off.... And after that, the war really became very intense, but I don't see how we can blame that on the United States.

Some people said the United States should have intervened militarily, but we felt that we did not have a responsibility to do that, and we did not intervene militarily, just as we did not intervene in many conflicts in Africa or in other parts of the world....

The end of the Cold War, a thaw in relations

Bright: From the 1950s to today, what [changes] have we seen in [the relationships of Western governments to] Africa? Using Liberia as an example...[have the relationships changed] as a result of the Cold War?

Cohen: Well, the Cold War essentially started in the '50s and lasted until 1989, and during that time, it impinged on our relationships with Africa. It doesn't mean that the Cold War dominated our relationship, because I think the United States' view of Africa was [that] what they needed was development [to make] money, [attracting] investments [to increase] trade. But the Cold War kept impinging on that policy and made it very difficult to implement, so we were supporting certain governments that were clearly not going to use their assistance for development but use it for other reasons. And [so] we supported people like Mobutu [Sese Seko, president, 1965-1991] in Zaire and a few others.

The Soviets supported people on their side, and then the Cold War got involved. Plus the Middle East got involved, too; the Middle East issue [affected events] in the Horn of Africa. So [there were] these external things. Now Liberia, we never had any problems with them. We had good relations with them even before the second world war. In fact, we built Robertsfield International Airport because of the second world war. And when the Cold War started, we always had the full support of the Liberian governments. [Both] the Tolbert government [and] the Doe government always were fully supportive of what we were trying to do. We never had any problems there. But then again, when the Doe regime became quite corrupt and minority-ridden -- it started out as being popular [and] for the majority, but it didn't demonstrate that; [its actions demonstrated that it] was just representing a small group -- [then] we had the dilemma [of] do we support this gentleman, or do we not? And initially the Cold War tilted us in favor of supporting [him] because we got reciprocal treatment. But as the Cold War was waning in 1987, 1988, we decided that unless they instituted economic reform, we would have to stop aiding them, which we did.... So with the end of the Cold War, we were less and less inclined to overlook the government's unfortunate practices. And then, when the Cold War collapsed completely, then, of course, you had war in Liberia, and the whole situation changed.

Bright: Did Doe feel betrayed?

Cohen: He did. He did. I remember I went to see him with Secretary of State [George] Shultz in January of 1987, and [Doe] was very upset, saying: "I'm your best friend; I kicked out the Libyan Embassy that was here, and I support you all over in the UN, even in the nonaligned movement. I'm always one of three or four African countries that's on your side, and all the rest are against you. And what are you doing? You're cutting off our military assistance, and you're lowering our economic assistance. It's all one-sided now. I'm your friend, but you're not my friend anymore." So he understood that things were changing....

A candid look at Samuel Doe

Bright: Was [Doe] clever?

Cohen: He was clever, but not sophisticated. He didn't have much intellectual depth, which is understandable. He came from being a sergeant with not much education, and he was suddenly leapfrogged into this position. He had gone to school. He started to understand the basic concepts of political science, international relations, but he still had a long way to go.... I think he didn't quite understand what modern government is all about.... It was a sort of a "live and let live, I do my thing, I take my revenues, and everyone else could do what they wanted." He wasn't too bad for the private sector. I remember visiting in 1987 after his first meeting with Secretary Shultz and meeting with the business community, and they said, were very comfortable with Doe.

Under Tolbert, Tolbert was always a 50 percent partner. If you wanted to start a business, you had to make him a silent partner for 50 percent. With Doe, we didn't have that problem. He just leaves us alone. He gets his revenue from the oil monopoly, from the rice monopoly, telecommunications monopoly, and he leaves us alone. We're comfortable with him.

Of course, Doe -- there were efforts to overthrow Doe, and he suppressed those ruthlessly, but the general population generally did not feel repressed under Doe, as far as I can tell.

Bright: Actually, [we've talked to other sources who tell us that] the general population started to feel repressed by Doe quickly, [especially] when [Thomas] Quiwonkpa [member of the junta that brought Doe to power, who shortly thereafter became an enemy -- and casualty -- of Doe] came in.

Cohen: There was a certain amount of political activity. We had all of these so-called parties, people speaking out, making press statements and that sort of thing. Doe seemed to tolerate that. I think, [though], where there were threats to his power and to his economic prerogatives, he was very ruthless, but otherwise, he left people alone....

Planning Doe's departure from Liberia

Bright: What could the U.S. have done differently during the late 1980s?

Cohen: Well, in the late '80s, we were putting a lot of pressure on Samuel Doe to reform the economic management, because there was too much money that was being siphoned off which should normally go to the people of Liberia in terms of infrastructure, health facilities, schools, and what have you. So we were starting to get quite tough with him. And the fact that the Cold War was ending I think was no coincidence. We had less need for his cooperation. When the war broke out, that was a surprise to us. We did not expect this incursion coming in from Côte d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] at the time, and of course, when it did start, we tried our best to bring about an early end to the conflict, first by trying to limit human rights violations on the part of the Liberian army. That was vetoed by the Liberian community here, who made a lot of noise about that. Secondly, we tried to do some mediation between Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe, and that didn't work, essentially because Samuel Doe was unwilling to make even minor concessions. By the time he was ready to make major concessions, it was too late. He had virtually lost the war.

So around April or May of 1990, we thought that the best thing for Liberia would be for Doe to leave the country, go into exile, and we had actually arranged for him to go to Togo, where he was going to be accepted. This would have allowed Charles Taylor to take power at that point. Unfortunately, our plan in the State Department was not approved at the White House level, and we never went through with that. And therefore the war continued, and it led to an intervention by the West African forces and the Nigerians, and the war was prolonged. And it ended up with Charles Taylor taking power anyway, but after a devastating war.

Bright: [BBC correspondent] Elizabeth Blunt said there was constant phone contact between everybody, including Prince Johnson [Taylor ally-turned-rival who carried out the capture and murder of Samuel Doe in 1990], with the Americans at the time, and Doe felt betrayed by the Americans. You're saying he was offered asylum and he didn't take it. Expand [on that].

Cohen: Well, it's not that he didn't take it. We never got to the point of actually offering it to him. We had started getting him psychologically attuned to the idea of leaving because he was surrounded. Taylor's forces had captured most of Liberia except for Monrovia, and he had started to get used to the idea of leaving. But we never got to the point of actually saying, "Okay, now is the time to leave and get out." He, of course, could have gotten out at any time. We had an aircraft available in Freetown [the capital of Sierra Leone] ready to pick him up. We told him that. But actually I was supposed to go there and say, "Okay, now is the time; get your family and everyone and get on the plane; let's go."

But I never got to that point. It was vetoed. So Doe, we were talking to him about leaving, and there was nothing to stop him from leaving. He had sent his family to London, and he could have easily followed them, but for some reason he decided that he would continue to fight, and he needed a push from us, which he never got.

"We have no real interest there"

Bright: Why did the White House clash with your initiatives [to assist Doe's voluntary departure from power]?

Cohen: Well, we had proposed that I go there and take Doe and persuade him to leave and go to Togo, which meant that Charles Taylor would immediately take power. And they said we should not do that; that the historical relationship really wasn't that important at that point, and we should not do that.

We never really had an explanation. Much later, there was an interview by Reed Cramer with General [Brent] Scowcroft which he published in the Bulletin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Scowcroft said, "Well, we felt at the time that we would then be permanently responsible for Liberia if we did that."

Now, this never came up in the discussions. We never really had a debate. We were just given a direct order from the White House not to do anything. But I remember meetings where Scowcroft's deputy, Robert Gates, who had come from the CIA, he was denigrating the historical relationship. He said, "It's meaningless; it doesn't govern us anymore; we treat Liberia just like any other country, and we have no real interest there."

And of course, the three agencies that had facilities there did not protest, which undermined me completely. The Defense Department, CIA, and USIA, they never protested, [never said,] "Yeah, we're going to lose these; they're worth tens of millions of dollars to replace." They never protested, which was a big disappointment.

But we never really had a debate, and of course, the judgment that we would be responsible for Liberia was a false judgment. We would not have been responsible if we had asked Doe to leave and Taylor came in; I don't see where we would have been responsible. It's not like sending troops, occupying a country like Haiti. So it was a false judgment.

...I think they made a big mistake. As I said before, we then subsequently spent hundreds of millions of dollars on humanitarian relief and support for ECOMOG, and it's still not over. And [the civil war in] Sierra Leone came about as a result of that. It was a big error of judgment based on faulty reasoning, faulty judgment....

Cohen negotiates with Taylor -- without the backing of the U.S. government

Bright: Describe Taylor when you first met him.

Cohen: Well, I had been speaking to Taylor on the telephone. He had a very sophisticated satellite telephone, and we had frequent conversations, but I didn't meet him until August of 1990, when I traveled to West Africa and did a tour of various countries, and from Côte d'Ivoire I went in by land across the border, and I met him at his jungle headquarters, and we had a discussion about the situation.

Bright: Characterize him at the time.

Cohen: Well, he was in a jungle setting. It was rather primitive. He didn't have much -- sort of in a thatched hut-type situation. And he was surrounded by young boys, heavily armed young boys, which was rather frightening, because they couldn't have been more than 13 or 14 years old. But he was very sophisticated. He understood many different concepts that we raised. And he was knowledgeable. He knew what was going on. He had sources of information about ECOMOG and U.S. policy and what have you. And he seemed to be willing to negotiate, and he kept emphasizing how important the United States was.

He said that he considered the United States to be the father of Liberia, and the father should take care of its children. And at that point, we had something like, I think, 2,000 Marines offshore on U.S. vessels, which had been sent there to protect U.S. citizens. And he said, "If these Marines came into Liberia, we'd all disarm immediately, because we trust the United States, and we know that they would do the right thing."

So he emphasized the importance of the United States becoming involved and, in effect, taking charge of the problem, which, of course, we had decided at a high level not to do. It was rather amusing, because when we were talking, I said: "Well, I kind of think ECOMOG is ready to negotiate with you. Couldn't we stop the fighting and explore possibilities of negotiating some sort of a peace process?" And he said, "Sure." I said, "Well, would you be willing to stop the fighting 48 hours from now if we can get ECOMOG to agree?" And he said yes. So when I got back to Abidjan [the capital of the Ivory Coast], we got in touch with ECOMOG and they agreed, and actually, a cease-fire went into effect. But the U.S. government disavowed that. They said I was just speaking for myself, because there was this basic determination not to really get involved with that problem in terms of negotiations, mediation. And [that determination] cost dearly, because over the years of the war, we spent hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, aid to ECOMOG, what have you....

Senegal plays a role in U.S.-Liberia negotiations

Bright: Was the U.S. making overtures to Senegal to get involved?

Cohen: Yeah. Well, Taylor refused to cooperate with the ECOWAS or the ECOMOG initially because he felt it was not a peacekeeping operation, and he felt that it was an operation against him. So he considered them enemies, and he was making war. And so in our dialogue with him, we said, "Well, is there someone else who would be helpful in being a neutral party, who could provide military forces and then allow a transition to take place to elections, someone you could trust?" He said, "Well, I don't trust any of the armies that are here now because they're fighting against us, but let's have someone who's had no involvement, and why not the Senegalese? I would trust them," he said. He actually told us that. So in 1991, I believe, President [Abdou] Diouf [president of Senegal, 1981-2000] made an official visit to Washington, and we put that on the agenda.

And we asked President [George H.W.] Bush to suggest that the Senegalese provide troops to ECOMOG, and therefore provide confidence to Taylor that he's dealing with a neutral army, and therefore he would be willing to disarm and go through the entire peace process. President Diouf said he would accept that assignment, but [that] he needed U.S. help in equipping a battalion to go there. So President Bush ordered the Defense Department to provide the equipment necessary.

And arrangements were made, and they did send a battalion. But President Taylor ended up not trusting them either. And at one point, when the Senegalese were playing the game where they were trying to move slowly at the rate that Charles Taylor was indicating he could accept, slowly moving into Charles Taylor's territory, [they] discovered an arms depot which should [have been] dismantled, and seven of their troops were deliberately murdered by the NPFL [Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia] forces, at which point the Senegalese said, "Well, clearly we're not considered neutral anymore; we're considered part of the enemy camps." So they pulled out. But we had a lot to do with the Senegalese going in in the first place. But the original suggestion came from Charles Taylor.

Bright: Did the Americans actually give Senegal debt relief?

Cohen: Not at that point, no. If we did do debt relief for Senegal, it had no connection with the Liberian involvement.

The destabilization of West Africa, and the case of Sierra Leone

Bright: Please talk about the stability of Sierra Leone and the rest of West Africa. What [has been] Liberia's impact on these countries?

Cohen: Well, Sierra Leone became involved originally because of the original ECOMOG force; there were Sierra Leone troops in that [force]. So therefore, the Sierra Leone government became part of the enemy as seen from Charles Taylor's perspective. And a lot of the Doe forces, the Krahn troops, escaped into Sierra Leone and were [based] there.
Therefore, Taylor can only look at Sierra Leone as part of the problem, and the Nigerians, of course, were using Freetown Airport... for bombing raids against Charles Taylor, so Sierra Leone, as far as Charles Taylor was concerned, was enemy territory. So therefore, what was natural [for him] was to support rebels against the regime there.

So Sierra Leone became embroiled in the whole process. And it became destabilized, and the military [there] mutinied and overthrew what was a corrupt government there. And it just became part of the Liberian nexus, and part of the problem.

The prognosis for Liberia's future

Bright: What's the prognosis?

Cohen: Well, Liberia could come back and take its place as a productive country and a wealthy country in West Africa. It has many resources. The population is small. It should be able to rebuild very easily, but there must be economic reform so as to make sure that the revenues that are generated go into the budget.... An important decision must be made by the leadership to modernize the form of government. [Because] they're just coming out of a war it's a little too early to tell, but I'm hoping that they will make these correct decisions. The World Bank is helping them, the International Monetary Fund [IMF]. If they do [make the correct decisions], if they develop modern management systems for their finances, there's no limit to what they can do in terms of development. It should work out well. But these are fundamental decisions that have not yet been made.

Bright: Talking to people in Liberia who feel there should be much more investment in the country, people continue to point their finger at America to give money so other countries will follow suit. Is that right?

Cohen: Well, it's not the United States. It's the World Bank and the IMF. The world has changed in the last 10 years, and especially for the developing world. No donor is going to give assistance to any African country or Latin American [country], no matter what, unless they first get under the umbrella of the World Bank and the IMF, which means implementing certain basic economic reforms, like capturing revenue and doing the right thing in terms of the civil service and what have you.

The parliaments of the world, of the democratic world -- and I'm not just talking about the United States, but Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands -- they're saying, "We will not allow one penny to go into any country unless we know what they're doing with their own money." And Liberia is not the only country having this problem.
Angola is another one, with its oil revenue. The IMF is saying: "Hey, let's look at the books. You want $100 million loan from the IMF? What are you doing with your oil revenue?" So far they haven't opened their books. And it has to be the same thing with Liberia.

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